“If you would know what the Lord God thinks of money, you have only to look at those to whom He gives it.”
“Who is John Galt?” again rings throughout the land. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s doorstop novel chronicling a general strike of the productive against the “looters,” gains resonance during times of increasing government control. I remember the book’s popularity among conservatives and libertarians when I attended Hillsdale College (1975-77), during the middle part of the 1970’s stagflation.
On Amazon.com’s sales ranking, the novel zoomed from no. 5,000 in early 2007, before the economic crash began, to no. 33 in early 2009, higher than President Obama’s Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. As I write in early August, it’s still no. 202 overall, no. 9 in political fiction, and no. 19 in “classic” fiction. That’s impressive for a 1957 novel of 1,368 pages that is an “immortal work of art,” according to the introduction by Leonard Peikoff. Peikoff, whom Rand called the “number-one man” in her “collective,” became her heir and assign and founded the Ayn Rand Institute, a tax-exempt foundation in Irvine, California.
After decades of “development hell” in Hollywood, the novel finally came to the silver screen, the medium in which Rand got her start when she ended up a Hollywood screenwriter after immigrating in 1926 from the atheist Soviet Union of Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin. Only the first third of the novel was filmed, to generally negative reviews; the other two parts may be filmed later. I didn’t see it. But friends of mine said it did present well the book’s central conceit: that when government and crony capitalist “moochers” collude to control and “loot” the innovators and entrepreneurs, the latter quit working, and the whole system shuts down. Rand’s hero, John Galt, calls it “stopping the motor of the world.”
One doesn’t expect verisimilitude in a novel with large elements of science fiction. Even in 1957, the major industries Rand described were declining. That year the Boeing 707 launched the Jet Age, dooming passenger railroads. And in America the steel industry already was in sharp decline from both government meddling and imports from the revived economies of Japan and Germany.
Today, the John Galt character would be somebody like Apple’s Steve Jobs, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, or Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who have had little trouble becoming billionaires. These info-moguls’ companies have enjoyed a largely low-tax, unregulated environment in which to make money, if only because the government doesn’t even understand what they do. Their products are bits and bytes with practically no impact on the environment. And they can jiggle tax and other records around the globe to get the best tax climates.
The real parallel to the Randian business heroes are the small-town, middle-class business owners, especially in manufacturing, who have to face down multitudinous bureaucrats thanks to the regulations that have multiplied, especially in the Bush-Obama years. These are the folks buying Atlas Shrugged.
If they’re reading it, they’re getting a large dose of Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, a hodgepodge of philosophies and beliefs. One influence is Aristotle; Part One of the novel is called Non-Contradiction—although Rand shuns the Stagirite’s belief in a Prime Mover. Another is Nietzsche, with Galt modeled on Zarathustra. The rest comes from Rand’s peculiar prejudices.
According to Objectivism, if one gets rid of God and other distractions that interfere with objectivity, and looks coldly at reality, then the truth “objectively” represents itself. Yet Rand “objectively” rejected Beethoven for Rachmaninoff, who was the rage in the Russia of her youth; and Shakespeare for Victor Hugo, her exemplar of Randian “romanticism” in art, which she defined as a “re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value judgments.” “Objectively,” we can say, she had bad taste.
Even though friends at Hillsdale kept urging me to read the book, I never could get beyond the first few pages. Atlas is turgid beyond endurance. It’s only partly translated from the Russian. I preferred the Christian “ghostly tales” of Russell Kirk, my Hillsdale professor and, later, my friend.
I tried reading Atlas in the following decades, to no avail. Finally, a few years ago, I noticed my local library carried a cassette version. Over the next couple of months, I drove to and from work feeding the tapes into my 1997 Buick LeSabre’s tape deck. Dodging the California traffic distracted me from the turgidity.
The book is humorless. But there was one point where I laughed out loud. Galt invents a motor that provides limitless energy from static electricity, what I dubbed the Objectivist Perpetual-Motion Machine. It was amusing to me because, growing up in a Michigan suburb in the 1960’s, every couple of weeks one heard a story that began, “Did you hear about how some guy over in Ferndale invented a motor that runs on water? Yeah. The oil companies gave him ten million and a house in the Bahamas to shut up about it.” A suburban legend became a key to Rand’s magnum opus.
As I plodded through the tapes, it became clear that the main theme of the book is not a strike against the government “looters” and their business “moochers”; nor is it the praise of free markets or the defense of adultery. The main theme is hatred of Jesus Christ.
In Part Two, Chapter Two, Francisco D’Anconia says,
Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to be the tool by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of men. Blood, whips and guns—or dollars. Take your choice—there is no other—and your time is running out.
Actually, there’s also love—Christian love, especially. And unlike the dollar, it hasn’t declined in value since 1957.
The climax of the novel comes in Part Three, A is A, another Aristotle reference. Chapter Seven is “This is John Galt Speaking,” in which Galt seizes control of a radio station and spouts Objectivism for hours, expecting the Americans of 1957 would forsake I Love Lucy. The speech runs some 70 pages.
Most people, even fans, are put off by it, hoping to get back to the action, such as heroine Dagny Taggert’s fornications. But this is the one part of the book I actually didn’t mind. (I’m a connoisseur of political screeds.) The key section is where Galt says,
For centuries, the battle of morality was fought between those who claimed that your life belongs to God and those who claimed that it belongs to your neighbors—between those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sake of ghosts in heaven and those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sake of incompetents on earth. And no one came to say that your life belongs to you and the good is to live it.
Recent biographies, such as Goddess of the Market, by Jennifer Burns, describe how young Alisa Rosenbaum (Rand’s given name) first came to America without a kopeck in her purse and was taken care of by relatives. Their love for her was what she later would decry as the “altruism” that is opposed to The Virtue of Selfishness (the title of one of her books).
Somehow, there even are “Christian Objectivists,” with numerous websites. They apparently believe they can “baptize” Ayn the way St. Thomas Aquinas “baptized” Aristotle. They’re fooling themselves. Objectivism is a cold creed that kills Christ for Mammon.
Rand died in 1982. She couldn’t take her money with her. Only charity goes with you into eternity. Now she knows—assuming knowledge of such things is allowed wherever she ended up—that Mammon is a demon.